by Ian Walker
When Survivor premiered in the summer of 2000, it changed television, pure and simple. There had never been a show like this before, a lot of people were interested enough to check it out. A lot of people. Over the course of the summer, Survivor evolved from some new curiosity to a cultural phenomenon, with the show gaining momentum, and viewership, with each passing week. The players themselves became household names as everybody became glued to their TV screens, hoping that their favorites wouldn’t be voted out that week.
While all of the 16 castaways were a big deal, whoever would be the winner would forever be known as the first champion of Survivor, a big deal in its own right. For 12 previous episodes, people had watched these first Survivor castaways, one by one, get their torch snuffed, their quest to win a million dollars come to an end; now, one of these final four people would achieve their goal by episode’s end. This final part of the journey to crown the winner had to stick the landing to make sure this show would have some longevity as a viable franchise, rather than a one-season wonder.
The show didn’t just stick the landing, it stuck it spectacularly. There are just so many great, iconic moments in this episode, providing the basis for so many things the show regularly relies on to this day, and it all starts with the final four vote.
Leading up to the finale, the biggest storyline developing the last few episodes was the gradual movement of Kelly away from the alliance, upset with the conniving nature of the people she had aligned with. That dissatisfaction resulted in an explosive argument with Sue the previous episode. Prior to the fight, Sue and Kelly had developed an extremely close, almost sister-like bond, but this fight was a huge hit to their relationship. It wasn’t enough, however, to prevent them from voting together here at the final four, both of them wanting to break up the other tight pair in Rich and Rudy.
When it comes time to cast their votes, it ends in the first Survivor tie, leaving both the players and the audience on the edge of their seats, wondering what happens next. Jeff Probst declares a revote, upon which Kelly switches her vote and sends Sue home. This first tie vote shows just how far players are willing to go save their own position and avoid the unknown, as Kelly secured her position in the final three by sending Sue out of the game.
With Sue gone, the final three head to the final immunity challenge, where some true Survivor magic happens. Up until this point, Richard had been calling all of the shots. He put the alliance together and had dictated all of the vote-outs since the merge, yet there was one more obstacle he had to overcome if he wished to sit at the final tribal council. For awhile now, he has had a final two agreement with Rudy, which was a problem for Richard. While Rudy, a man of honor, would stick by his word and take Richard, Richard knew he couldn’t beat Rudy in a potential final two situation, and thus had to think of a way to get to the end without Rudy. Fortunately, an opportunity presented itself during the last challenge, the famous Hands on a Hard Idol challenge, where players must simply touch the immunity idol while standing on a stump for as long as they can without removing their hand.
All three competitors last for 2-½ hours, upon which Richard then makes his move. After giving a short speech, telling the other two players he hopes that “either one of you have just recognized what I have done to get here,” and then removes his hand from the idol, eliminating himself from the challenge. Kelly and Rudy, as well as the audience, are shocked that Richard would take himself out like that, but what nobody but Richard seems to realize is that he just secured himself a spot in the final two.
Now, no matter who wins this last challenge, it would be in both Kelly and Rudy’s best interest to take Richard to the end. For Rudy, he would just be upholding his end of the bargain; for Kelly, she knows that Rudy is the bigger jury threat than Richard, and thus would be unwise to take him over Richard. It’s a brilliant move that speaks to just how deeply Richard was thinking about this game, more than anybody else he was competing with, and provided a defining moment in the evolution of the game.
Of course, there was one outcome Richard wanted more than the other, and it’s the one he ended up getting. Kelly won the final immunity challenge, capping off an impressive streak of four immunity wins in a row, and what Richard expected to happen did happen. At the penultimate tribal council, Kelly chose to vote out Rudy, realizing Richard’s desires but squashing the desires of everybody watching at home.
Going into the finale, Rudy was the audience’s overwhelming favorite, his blunt one-liners and gruff personality having won over the viewers over the course of the season. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be, as Rudy became the final member of the jury, setting up one last battle between Richard and Kelly that left its mark, not just on the show, put pop culture at large.
The final tribal council of Survivor: Borneo has the single most iconic moment, not just in the history of Survivor, but in the last 20 years of television as a whole. Sue’s snakes and rats speech is the culmination of all the drama and intrigue the show had been building up to this point. It succinctly encapsulates the conniving, devious nature of the game they all learned how to play, and why Richard was the best player sitting at the end. He was the snake who not only knowingly went after prey but relished in it, thoroughly enjoying the social politics and the strategy of Survivor. Her blasting of Kelly, the one person she considered a friend on the island before their falling out, was enough to give anybody watching chills.
By the end of it, it was clear that television history had been made; the speech is just as incredible television today as it was back then and it totally set the bar for emotional jury speeches in future seasons of Survivor.
Side-note: Greg Buis, who had turned his Survivor experience into a sort of meta art project on the fallacy of television, has one final rebellious moment as he claims to be deciding his vote based on which of the final two come closest to the number he’s thinking of between 1 and 10. He also famously sniffs the marker pen before he casts his vote (for Richard).
After Sue’s epic speech, the votes for the winner are cast, and for the only time in Survivor history the winner is revealed on location rather than on live TV back in the states. By a vote of 4-3, Richard Hatch is the first winner of Survivor. The look of shock and relief on Richard’s face is the final iconic image from this episode, as the first season of Survivor officially comes to an end.
What started out as a strange, new oddity of a show on May 31, 2000 ends as a game-changing phenomenon on August 23, single-handedly creating a new genre of television launching a franchise that’s as durable and engaging today as it was when it first started out, all those years ago.